Born in 1894 in Montella, Italy, Leonarda Cianciulli was by all accounts a superstitious woman. Not much is known about Leonarda prior to the killings but she was suicidal for most of her life and even tried to commit suicide twice. Eventually, she married a registry clerk in 1917, against the wishes of her family. Her parents were so upset that Leonarda’s mother allegedly cursed the young couple. While the nature of the curse remains unknown, its presence hung over Leonarda’s 17 pregnancies. She lost three to miscarriages, while 10 other children died when they were very young. Consequently, Leonarda Cianciulli was veryprotective of her surviving four children. After their marriage, the couple moved to Lariano in Alta Irpinia but their home was destroyed by an earthquake in 1930. They were forced to moved once more to Correggio—it is here where Leonarda opened a small shop and became very popular within the neighborhood. Many saw Leonarda as a nice and gentle woman who was a loving mother and a respectable neighbor.
Compounding her fear was the premonition of a fortuneteller she had visited as a young woman. The psychic predicted that Leonarda would marry and have children, but that all of her offspring would die. A subsequent visit to a palm reader brought more bad news: “In your right hand I see prison,” said the palm reader. “In your left, a criminal asylum.”
In 1939, Leonarda learned that her eldest son planned to fight with the Italian army in World War II. Being that her eldest son—Giuseppe—was also her favorite child, Leonarda was determined to protect him no matter the costs.She was also terrified at the thought of losing yet another child, Leonarda resolved to protect him at any cost. Such a supernatural defense, she reasoned, would require sacrifice—human sacrifice. So the concerned mother set out to find her victims.
It seems that Leonarda was something of a fortuneteller herself, a trade she often practiced with the women of her village. Her trusting clients made perfect targets. Leonarda selected three women—Faustina Settie, Francesca Soavi, and Virginia Cacioppo. She gave each a reason to leave town—a prospective husband in Faustina’s case. Leonarda’s first victim was lifelong spinster—and neighbor—Faustina Setti, who was desperately looking for a husband and often confided in Leonarda.
As for the other two she told them promises of employment in the case of Francesca and Virginia. She convinced the women to keep their plans secret prior to departure. In addition, Leonarda instructed her first two victims to preemptively write letters, addressed to friends and family and postmarked from their respective destinations, claiming that all was well.
Prior to her departure, Faustina Setti visited Leonarda one last time. The fortuneteller provided Faustina with a glass of wine—a toast, perhaps, to brighter days ahead. The wine was drugged. Soon after the sedatives took hold, Leonarda bludgeoned Faustina with an axe.
After drugging Setti, Leonarda killed her with an axe and dragged her body into a closet. She proceeded to cut Setti’s body into 9 parts and collected her blood in a basin. In her memoir—An Embittered Soul’s Confessions—Leonarada details what occurred next:
I threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred the whole mixture until the pieces dissolved in a thick, dark mush that I poured into several buckets and emptied in a nearby septic tank. As for the blood in the basin, I waited until it had coagulated, dried it in the oven, ground it and mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk and eggs, as well as a bit of margarine, kneading all the ingredients together. I made lots of crunchy tea cakes and served them to the ladies who came to visit, though Giuseppe and I also ate them.
The second victim, Francesca Soavi, met a similar end. Leonarda cut Francesca's body into pieces. Similarly, she collected the blood and placed the chunks into a pot with caustic soda, used for making soap. Once the body dissolved into a mush, Leonarda poured the goo into a septic tank. She dried the blood in an oven, then mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk, eggs, and margarine, and made teacakes that she served to neighbors. According to her memoir, her neighbors also enjoyed the bloody pastries.
Leonarda’s final victim, Virginia Cacioppo, was a former soprano. She had flesh that was “fat and white” and, according to the killer, made a “most acceptable creamy soap” when boiled down. The murdered singer received the same culinary treatment as Leonarda’s previous victims; her remains were cooked into treats and distributed among neighbors. Leonarda noted that “the cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.”
Virginia Caccioppo proved to be Leonarda’s last victim. Some sources have recorded that Leonarda received the women’s life savings: 30,000 lire for Setti; 3,000 lire for Soavi; and 50,000 lire and assorted jewels for Cacioppo. Virginia’s sister-in-law grew suspicious of her disappearance and told the superintendent of police that she had last seen Caccioppo entering Cianciulli’s home. Leonarda was promptly arrested, admitting to her crimes. During her trial in 1946, she remained unrepentant, going so far as to correct lawyers on grisly details and proudly claiming that she had donated the copper ladle—originally used to skim human fat—to the war effort. Leonarda maintained a cool demeanor during her trial and didn’t appear regretful:
Her deep-set dark eyes gleamed with a wild inner pride as she concluded: "I gave the copper ladle, which I used to skim the fat off the kettles, to my country, which was so badly in need of metal during the last days of the war….”
Cianciulli was found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum. She died of cerebral apoplexy in 1970. While she was behind bars, she wrote a memoir called An Embittered Soul’s Confessions, in which she coolly described her crimes. Leonarda wrote the memoir to get herself busy while in prison. In the memoir, Leonarda details the murders and even provides tips and tricks on how to successfully turn people into soap. The murders have inspired a handful of plays and films, and several pieces of evidence from the case, including the pot in which the victims were boiled, remain on display in Rome’s Criminological Museum.
Moral of the story? Don’t accept food from strangers—or soap!
Feature photo: Wikimedia Commons